From Hiraeth to Hope: Healthy Grieving

A couple of years ago I stumbled upon a wonderful Welsh word: hiraeth. It’s one of those impossible-to-translate words. Hiraeth describes a nostalgic longing, a homesick yearning, a painful ache – perhaps for a homeland or an era that no longer exists. The Welsh are quite insistent that it means much more than mere nostalgia for past people or things or places. It wells up from deep within our hearts, and may include grieving over a past that never was or a future that could have been but is now impossible. It seems to seek a true homeland whose grasp is elusive, one that could never fully be attained or sustained in this life. In that regard, hiraeth and hope seem closely connected.

Hope is a God-given virtue that increases in us a deep desire for fulfillment in Christ’s Kingdom. Hope allows us to be aided by the Holy Spirit so that we can renounce self-reliance and place our trust entirely in Christ and his promises, which will never deceive or disappoint. For he is Truth itself.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (n. 1818) describes hope as elevating and purifying our own yearnings for happiness, bringing them all into subjection to Christ and his Kingship, ordering them towards their true fulfillment. Hope liberates us from discouragement and sustains us when we feel alone and abandoned.

How do we move from hiraeth to hope?

I am convinced that the process involves healthy grieving of one kind or another. Jesus tells us that those who mourn are blessed, and that they will be comforted. Every tear will be wiped away. But we must first pass through the dark places of our heart, our valleys of tears – preferably with all earthly and heavenly helps at our disposal.

Hiraeth is described as bittersweet – and not merely because one had something happy that is now gone. There is so much more. I believe the bitter ache is welling up from a much deeper place in our heart, a dark valley that most of us fear and avoid. The sweetness is welling up from an even deeper place, a place beyond the valley of tears, where God whispers our true eternal identity in our  heart.

Ecclesiastes describes an appointed time for everything under heaven: a time to give birth and a time to die, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, etc. The author remarks that God has “placed the timeless into their hearts” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Our deepest, truest self knows that all else is vanity and emptiness, and will pass away. That inevitable loss is sad indeed. But hope of our true destiny spurs us on, giving us the determination and the endurance that we need to pass through the valley of tears.

How do we grieve well? The ancients tell us that virtue is found in the middle course. One extreme is to be stuck in the past, paralyzed by nostalgia, incapable of letting go or moving on. At the opposite extreme some of us “rush ahead” into hope, pretending like everything is swell. In doing so, we are denying or minimizing our pain. It will come back with a vengeance. I think of the Pixar film Inside Out as a masterful illustration of our need for healthy grieving and the unhelpfulness of trying to mask over our pain with false joy or false hope.

Just as abiding in the Lord and bearing fruit is long and patient work, so also walking the path from hiraeth to hope will often be slow and arduous. It may require the hard work of clearing out obstacles or cooperating with God in removing toxic filth. It is not a “one and done” task. Therapists compare grieving with the process of peeling layers from an onion. We shed so many tears and receive so much healing that we think the process must surely be done now – only to discover more layers.

Our pain may come from various sources: death of loved ones, sudden tragedy, betrayal or victimization, childhood abuse or neglect, or the creeping realization of old age and human mortality. Often it is the oldest wounds, still unhealed, that cause the most pain. When we find ourselves “overreacting” to a situation in the present moment, it is likely a sign that the situation somehow poked at an old unhealed wound. Such moments are painful, but they are great opportunities to receive the healing balm of the Holy Spirit. Remember that “Christ” means “anointed one.” Therefore being a Christian means allowing ourselves to be anointed. Receiving ointment on unhealed wounds is painful, but is far better than leaving them to fester!

When life touches an old wound, rather than blame the person or situation that upset us, we can heed the invitation to return to the valley of tears. There we can receive strength and anointing from on high, which always happens so much better in healthy community than as an isolated individual. We can reach out to trusted friends, the godly people in our life who know better than to try to “fix” our problems, who will listen to us and give us the encouragement we need to persevere.

On this journey, I think of the wise men following the star together to Bethlehem. They experience a longing very akin to hiraeth. They don’t go it alone, but travel together. They are humble enough to seek and receive guidance from others. They support and encourage one another during their long trek. They have no idea where they are ultimately going, but they trust the deepest yearnings of their heart, and they recognize truth and goodness and beauty when they find it.

When it comes to healthy grieving, sojourning from hiraeth to hope, we very much need the support of others. In communion with them, we will be more open to receiving the healing balm of the Holy Spirit. We will be more disciplined in rooting out from the valley of tears the poisonous plants that block our path to our true homeland.

There are other hindrances and helps to consider. I’ll share more next time.

Come, Lord Jesus!

“He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” Countless Christians profess these words in the Nicene Creed every single Sunday. But do we pause to reflect on the reality of Judgment that is coming?

Perhaps we are uneasy or afraid at the thought of all things being laid bare for all to see. As Jesus tells his disciples, “Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known” (Matthew 10:26) – an unsettling thought indeed.

Yet we beg God repeatedly that this Judgment will happen. Every time we pray the Our Father, we beseech Him, “Thy Kingdom Come.”  Or we pray with great longing, “Come, Lord Jesus!”

Somehow, this Judgment, painful though it may be, is definitively Good News for us. Rather than dread it, we can learn to hope and long for it, to see it as our one and only way to true freedom.

A wise man once told me, “The truth can hurt, but it will never harm.” An even wiser man once said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).

Truth is indeed a central theme in Judgment. Jesus is the just one who will bring forth the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. There will be no shading of the truth on that day, no half-truths or equivocations, no pretending or putting on masks, no selective reporting of the facts. Those are tactics we turn to in our insecurity, but they won’t work on the Day of Judgment. The full truth will emerge.

Paul perhaps puts it best, in his typically confusing way: “At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

We will know ourselves as God knows us. Our full truth will be brought to the light of day. Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. He is God’s eternal Word. In the beginning, God spoke that Word, and it was made. On the Day of Judgment, He wills speak that Word in glory. All that is true and definitive will emerge, with all falsehood melting away once-and-for-all.

Thankfully, the full and definitive truth about ourselves includes God’s tender and merciful love for us as his beloved children. He only wants to love us. He is not out to get us. In our distorted view of God, we tend to think that He is trying to trip us up, catch us in our sins, yell “Gotcha!!” and then smite us. Those are lies about God and ultimately lies about ourselves.

Yes, hell is a real possibility. Jesus speaks of it often. But God is not out to get us. Hell is real because love is real. God has created us to love and be loved. That includes freely receiving and freely giving. He will never force us – otherwise it would not be love!

If there is any consistent theme in Scripture, it is that God always respects human freedom. He never makes anyone do anything. He invites and entices. He exhorts and urges. He corrects and chastens. But He created us as free sons and daughters, and desires to save us as free sons and daughters. Our free “yes!” is part of the story. In the end, God gives us what we want. His Judgment lays bare all that we have freely chosen for ourselves. Jesus is God’s Word, and he says “Amen!” to what we have chosen during the time allotted to us.

Thankfully he does not leave us alone and unaided in our exercise of human freedom. We truly share in the death and resurrection of Jesus. His life becomes our life. And the Day of Judgment becomes a Day of Justice. Our King comes to settle all affairs, and to set things right once-and-for-all. Is that not our heart’s deepest longing?

Part of that setting right is the setting free of our own hearts. Our false self must die definitively so that our new self can emerge victorious. That experience proves to be painful and liberating at the same time.

The image offered frequently in Scripture is that of fire. “Our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29). His love blazes mightily. The prophet Malachi foretells the great and terrifying Day of the Lord, coming like refiner’s fire. Gold is plunged into the furnace, not to destroy it, but to purify it of all that is not gold. God wants each of us to pass through the fire of Judgment and emerge as his free and glorious children.

When Paul talks about being known as we are known by God, he also says, “Faith, hope, and love endure, these three. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). All else is burnt away in the fire of Judgment, except that which is graced by our union with the Lord Jesus. Earlier in the same letter, Paul speaks of many of us being saved on the Day of Judgment, “but only as through fire” (1 Corinthians 3:15). All within us that is wood and hay and straw will be burnt away – our own feeble attempts at self-assertion and self-protection. But the gold, silver, and precious stones will endure – all that we have freely received from God in faith, hope, and love. In the beautiful words of Benedict XVI, the fire of Christ’s love will sear us through. We will become truly and totally ourselves, and thus truly and totally of God.

Come, Lord Jesus!

The Communion of Saints

As most of you know, “Hallowe’en” is short for All Hallows’ Eve. Tonight is the vigil of All Saints. On this day, we rejoice in the victory that God has already won in the lives of the holy men and women who have gone before us in faith. They are now fully alive in the heavenly Body of Christ. Their triumph in Him gives us hope amidst our difficulties.

They also give us comfort and support. We are not alone in our struggle. We are united with them in love. For Christ’s Body is one.

You may recall the conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus. He heard the voice of Jesus questioning him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). Not “Why are you persecuting my followers?” But “Why are you persecuting me?” Christ and his members are one. Many parts but one living body. Branches abiding on the vine. Living stones in the temple. Bride and bridegroom united as one flesh.

Paul’s encounter was not simply a one-on-one personal encounter with Jesus. It was an encounter with the whole mystical reality that is the Church. The encounter changed Paul’s life was forever. His old self died, along with his desperate striving for self-righteousness. He took on a completely new existence “in Christ” – a phrase that he went on to use 165 times in his letters! He understood our existence “in Christ” as a totally new identity, now no longer in isolation, but in an abiding communion with God and neighbor. In Romans 6 he described faith and baptism as causing us to die with Christ and rise with him to new life.

We are united in Christ in a living communion of love that far transcends the here and now. Saint Augustine offers a panoramic view of the Church as the whole Christ united in love:

“His Body is the Church, not this or that church, but the one that is spread throughout the world, not only that which exists now in the men and women of this present life, but includes also those members who existed before us and those who will exist after us – all the way to the end of the world.  For the whole Church, made up of all the faithful (for all the faithful are members of Christ) has in heaven that head placed over her that guides his body. Though separated in vision, she is united as one in love.”

The Apostles’ Creed is a prayer treasured by Catholics and Protestants alike. In it, we profess our belief in the “communion of saints.” The Latin phrase is sanctorum communio, words that are delightfully ambiguous. They can mean “fellowship of holy people” as well as “sharing of holy things.” In fact, “communion of saints” means both. When one member of the Body suffers, all suffer. When one is exalted, all are exalted. Christ and his Bride are truly one flesh. They share everything together.

In our present days of darkness and division, this heavenly communion should give us great hope and encouragement. We are not alone. We are surrounded by a great “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1). They have already conquered in Christ. They are now cheering us on as we run the race and fight the good fight.

Their triumph and their love also nurtures our deepest and holiest desires – which often lie dormant and forgotten, buried beneath the stress and chaos of our lives. Chief among those desires is the virtue of hope. Christian hope is a deep and intense longing for our true heavenly homeland.

There are many counterfeit versions of “hope” these days – political ideologies, fantasy escapes, worldly success, or the promise that technology can solve all our problems. These false hopes promise much but deliver little. They leave us disappointed, as the thing-hoped-for proves not to be the answer to our heart’s deepest questions.

True hope does not disappoint. We are destined to be perfected in the love of Christ. If we freely cooperate with his free gift, we will one day be strong enough and pure enough and holy enough to see God in the face and live. Mind you, He already loves us dearly. But we are not yet ready to receive all that love in all the ways he would love to share it. He prepares us step by step. Our capacity to receive needs to be stretched. Our desire needs to grow and grow. The more intense our longing for the Lord, the more capable we become of receiving true holiness.

Often, it is precisely through the painful trials of life that God blesses and strengthens us the most. In the moment they are cause for misery, but over time they emerge as part of a larger and beautiful story. Jesus compares the experience to a mother in labor, who finally gives birth. Paul compares it to athletes in training, with their eyes on the prize. Scripture frequently speaks of gold or silver plunged into the furnace, purified of all dross so that God’s glory can shine forth.

In this life or the next, all of us are destined to be purified by the fire of God’s love and come to shine with the saints in heaven. I have never heard that encounter described more beautifully than in the words of Pope Benedict XVI:

“…the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Savior. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgment. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with Him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw … and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of His heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation ‘as through fire.’ But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of His love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God.”

May we all draw inspiration from the holiness of the saints. May we be unafraid of the intensity of God’s love, which is indeed an all-consuming fire. Rather, may we be filled with true hope, abiding in God’s love until all his promises are fulfilled.